Note: This novella is set in the Diablo 3 world, around the time of events in the game. Refer to the world map for place locations such as Gea Kul. Some artistic liberties have been taken with spells, characters, and other game functions. The story will be presented in 3 parts, since it's quite long (~27k words). Some author's notes will follow. Comments/critiques/flames are welcome.
The Destruction, Betrayal, and Ultimate Resurrection of the Mage Academy of Gea Kul
As darkness fell, I found myself sitting shoulder to shoulder with four of my fellow mages. We had food, but ate little. We had wood, but burned only enough to keep the campfire alight. We had words, but did not share them, for each man was lost in his own thoughts. I knew the others were thinking about the day's toils, the blood that warfare had left on our hands, and the grim deeds that awaited us on the morrow. It is a terrible task to contemplate, to think of the men and demons we will have to cut through in pursuit of a wayward initiate, but it must be done.
Though I believe that this is my last night among the living, I do not believe in fate. This tragedy was not preordained by some cruel god; some roll of the cosmic bones. This end was not inevitable. It could have been avoided, and Zia, the strongest student to ever pass through the Academy at Gea Kul would still be enrolled there, learning and prospering, rather than almost single-handedly turning back the largest invasion of demons in remembered history, while a death squad of her former instructors closes in from behind. A death squad of which I am the leader. A death squad that will surely overtake her tomorrow, though I would not care to bet on who will be the dealer, and who the receiver, of that death.
Five against one should be sure odds, even amidst the demonic war that rages around us, but our quarry has thrived in a land that few survive, she travels with powerful allies, and she has mastered spells never taught in the Academy of which I was formerly the Archmaester. Catch Zia we will, but I know not whether we will hold this tiger by the tail, or the jaws, and after dwelling on such thoughts all day, I can endure them no longer. Therefore I cast them back, retreating into my memories, for if I can not see clearly the future, I can at least relive the past.
From the first day of Zia's arrival at the mage academy in Gea Kul, she was remarkable. Her beautiful face, her youthful vigor, her astonishing inherent talent; all gleamed like diamonds in the sun. More than those traits, there was something entrancing about her, a shining clarity to her personality that made her unforgettable to all, whether they were friend or foe. And yes, she had friends in those early days -- do not allow the slanders that sprang up after her abrupt and deadly departure obscure that fact. Zia was a friendly, cheerful girl, one who was unfortunately and tragically unaware of the power she wielded in every laugh and toss of her shining hair.
Her radiance, her attraction, came entirely from within. Her clothing was plain, and there was certainly nothing notable about her pedigree. In an academy full of princesses, lordlings, and the children of nobles and powerful merchants, Zia was a pauper. She hailed from an obscure village on the edge of the Southern jungles, the daughter of wool merchants who had scarcely been able to afford her passage to Gea Kul. She had only enough gold for her first year's tuition, and could not afford robes, books, reagents, or a better quality of food than that provided to the servants.
None of those facts ever dissuaded her in the slightest, nor did much else make an impression on her perpetually sunny disposition. Some attributed this to a mental defect, an inability to grasp the gravity of difficult situations, but I came to see things differently. I believed then, and still do, that Zia simply chose to ignore such obstacles. She focused all of her indomitable will on the problems she could surmount, on the spells and lore she was set to learn, and let other issues take care of themselves.
Which they did, to a remarkable extent. For better and for worse.
She made her mark during her first week at the Academy, a time when most new students are content, even grateful, to remain ensconced in their rooms in the novice dormitory. Zia studied; she learned more than the rest of the novices combined, while also appearing at the center of every event in the Academy. She'd ridden to the Academy in a small wagon with two other students, both of whom were years older than her, and quite experienced with magic in their own ways. During the long journey Zia had picked their brains for every bit of lore and witchery they possessed, and though none of it was proper magecraft, she absorbed it at once and somehow applied it to her formal learning.
First year students have few regular classes, and much of their time out of their rooms is spent in study sessions with older students, who point them to the books they must learn before they can progress to any proper spell casting. Most novices are hardly seen for six months, so buried are they in remedial reading and solitary practice as they attempt to master the basic incantations.
Zia studied as much as anyone, but somehow contrived to be out and about as well. I saw her reading at meals, and even while walking through the hallways. Twice I saw her literally walk into another student, so absorbed was she in the book she was holding before her face. No one took offense, and it seemed like the other students, males especially, were flattered by the collisions. Part of it was Zia's clothing; though she wore the novice robes she'd been presented, and seemed utterly without concern for her appearance, she maintained an erotic aura. Her clothing was either too loose or too tight, often at the same time. Parts of her swelling anatomy were hugged most provocatively, even as her robes seemed about to fall off her slender shoulders. Like all student robes hers was hooded, but the cloth never seemed to obscure the view of her long, graceful neck, an expanse of skin more sensual than another woman's complete nudity. Zia was striking in any garment, almost enchanting, with her perpetual open-mouthed smile, flashing white teeth, and dancing blue eyes.
I found cause to speak with her on several occasions during those first few days, and after no more than a few seconds looking into her eyes, I always found my thoughts wandering into most unsuitable areas; especially unsuitable given my position as Arch Maester. My thoughts for Zia were never erotic; I never allowed myself to fall prey to that temptation. Not sexual, but protective. Though she was in no danger within the fortified walls of the Academy, I felt a compulsion to guard over her and to keep her from harm's way.
I took special pains to protect all the students, of course. Decades past, during my early years as a student, a rather aggressive mentality had permeated the Academy, and there were dangerous magical competitions and ruthless hazing rituals which resulted in numerous injuries, several deaths, and the premature departure of a number of promising, but less assertive, students. I had put an end to such practices once I became the Archmaester, and had made the protection and cultivation of the students my utmost priority. Before Zia's arrival, I'd never felt such a personal bond. She was a pupil, entrusted body and mind to the Academy I had been elected to direct, but at the same time she was a daughter, or at least a younger sister, to me. I would have moved mountains for her, and wreaked a terrible vengeance upon anyone who tried to harm her.
And yet, in the end I was the one who harmed her the most cruelly. Not directly, but by inaction. Blinded by my infatuation, I allowed the situation to grow untenable, and for that I hope Zia can forgive me. Even if she must grant that forgiveness with my hands around her throat.
I first witnessed a miracle from her hands on just her fifth day at the Academy. As I said, new students were seldom seen out of their quarters during their first months, except at mealtimes, when they could be seen scurrying towards the kitchen, dazed or panicked expressions on their faces. Zia was different, for in addition to her insatiable reading, she desired to see actual magic performed, and was bold enough to seek it out.
I was leading a class on elemental fire enchantments class that fifth morning, filling in for a Maester who had fallen ill. As I carefully explained the physical motions, ritual incantations, and mental state required to call forth flame from a dry patch of sand, I became aware that Zia was standing in the rear of the class, her shimmering blue eyes somehow brighter and more insistent of my attention than the eyes of the two dozen third rank students filling the front rows of the large hall.
I'd instructed nearly every course in the Academy, I'd demonstrated magery before kings and sultans, and I'd cast spells to save my life in battle, conjuring frantically with my very soul hanging in the balance. Yet I'd seldom felt as self conscious as I did once I noticed Zia's presence. I managed not to botch the spell or the lesson, I was too accomplished for that, but as the students paired off and arranged themselves around the large stone room, wands in hand and piles of sand under foot, Zia tiptoed out from the shadows, meeting me near the rear entrance, now bolted shut as a form of protection against the powerful magics being unleashed in this classroom.
"If I correctly understood your fascinating lesson, Archmaester Yun, the key is to know the elemental nature of flame, and to call it forth. Almost like summoning a trained animal. The flame is not any bear. The flame is one particular bear. With a unique name you must find in your own mind, that will forever link you to the flame. Yes?"
I'd never heard it described in such a fashion, and the directness of her words almost startled me, but after a moment's thought I realized that yes, she had cut straight to the heart of the matter. And with far more precision than any other student in the class could have mustered. Calling forth flame, and maintaining it without any substance for kindling, was one of the more difficult tests of pure magery, but at that moment I found myself foolishly sure that Zia was up to it.
Stirred, I made the first of my many mistakes with that girl. I decided to challenge her.
"Take this wand. Concentrate on that sand. And call forth your bear."
I handed her the simple wooden wand I used for instruction, turned her by the shoulders to face the patch of sand I'd used for my own demonstration a moment before, and waited. As the seconds passed, I realized that I was too close. My hands were hovering, almost trembling, above her delicate shoulders, and my hip was nearly touching hers. I was too close for propriety, and certainly too close to a very raw mage, one I was pushing to cast a spell she had no business attempting for another three or four years.
In fact, I belatedly realized that I hadn't even given her a spell. Fire magery is learned in stages, with the aid of cheats and trickery. Students first learn simple feits, ways to create sparks, ways to charm wood to burn more quickly than natural, that sort of thing. Actually calling forth the essence of flame, without working up to it via baby steps, was unheard of. Yet just as I realized my mistake, and opened my mouth to correct it, Zia thrust the wand forward, her face tight with concentration as she cried out a single word.
"Ursalia!" she shouted, and with that came a roar of flame, as a single white geyser roared forth from the sand, crackling in the air so loudly that every eye was drawn to Zia's enchantment.
"Impossible!" hissed the stunned voice of a male student, a young man in his sixth year at the Academy. I might have echoed that sentiment, but my attention was entirely on Zia, rather than the remarkable flame she was nurturing. Her jaw was jutting forward, her teeth were clenched, and yet her beauty was undiminished. When she spoke, after several seconds of maintaining the flame, she moved only her lips, keeping her eyes focused on the elemental eruption her iron will was maintaining control over.
"Archmaester Yun." She said, her voice calm and strong. I did not reply at once, my attention too occupied by her remarkable magery. After a short pause, she continued. "I have called forth my bear, and her power is great. How do I dispel her?"
I almost laughed, embarrassment and amazement warring within me. A moment later my emotions turned to puzzlement, and then to fear, as I more carefully examined the enchantment Zia held before her. She had not created a flame, and nurtured it with her spellcraft. She had unleashed the essence of fire, the elemental might that surrounds us at all times. Simply touching that level of magery was the work of a lifetime, and this slip of a girl had done it without the slightest idea what she was doing. More than that, she'd found some way to harness the flame within a protective shield.
It was a good thing she had. This was not a magical demonstration; this was the edge of an apocalypse. If her control slipped, the fire would not fail, since she was not causing it to burn. She was restraining the elemental force, like a damn holding back the ocean. If Zia's control failed, the flames would erupt, filling this room, and perhaps the entire Academy, with flaming destruction. This should not have been possible. I could not have done what this girl had done. No more than a handful of living mages could have, and I was not sure any would have dared attempt it, save while standing on an island in the center of the ocean, with the salvation of deep blue water at their heels.
I let none of those thoughts taint my voice, which I forced to remain calm and soothing. "Speak to it again, Zia. Think of the essence of the flame, as you did before you called it forth. Push it away. Push it back into the elemental plane from which it came. Order it by name."
Despite my tone, which must have sounded like the voice a man uses to calm a startled horse, I was awash with anxiety. If Zia lost control, I did not think I could dispel the elemental might the girl had loosed. Not without enchanted armor and weaponry to enhance my powers, and perhaps not even then. I was not frightened, but I was definitely anxious. Zia was neither. She was never afraid, not then, and not at any other time I knew her. If I was trying to calm anyone's fear, it was my own.
She followed my instructions, of course. She always followed them, even to her eventual doom, and in just seconds the fire began to fade before the might of her soft voice and the wooden wand I'd so cavilerly handed to her. The flame did not decrease in heat or intensity; and even when the fire was no taller than one of the first green sprouts of spring, it continued to burn with a white heat sufficient to melt through stone. Zia did not diminishing its power, since no one could do that. She simply forced it back into the elemental ether, pushing it down until it winked out and left the room in what seemed, for a moment, like darkness.
Shaking her hands and shrugging her shoulders, Zia whirled towards me, excitement gleaming on her face. "That was wonderful, Archmaester Yun! I'd never before felt such power! Might I attend your class again next week? I'm doing as much reading as I can, but I've worked through most of the first year books already, and all that endless theory and memorization is so dreary. I want to learn true magery. I want to understand the manipulation of elemental forces! Not just slight of hand tricks to fool peasants and princes!"
Flabbergasted, I could only nod and take back my wand when she held it out to me. If I'd been honest, I could have told her that she had nothing else to learn from this class. That she'd demonstrated a mastery quite beyond what I expected of any of the third levels I was teaching, all of them fifth and sixth year students. But I couldn't say that, not to a brand new student, and besides, I very much wanted to see more of her. More of her amazing natural talent for magery, I told myself at the time, but in retrospect, I must drop that pretense. I wanted to see more of Zia, whether or not she was holding a wand in her small hand. I certainly did all I could to see more of her as she gave a little hop to get going, then fairly danced out of class, her narrow hips swaying beneath her robe in most enticing fashion. At that moment, I decided that I would give Maester Dolcient as much time as she needed to recover her health and return to instructing this class.
Looking around the classroom at the paltry efforts of the older students, I caught a few of them flicking glances towards me, and remembered myself. I moved at once, strolling around the room, inspecting their progress and offering suggestions as needed. While I instructed them, I tried to gauge the mood of the students. I was fairly sure none were advanced enough to sense the true force of Zia's magery, and in fact, I rather hoped they had not. All rumors spread wildly in the Academy, and I could only imagine the wild stories that would spring up if word got around that a novice, eighteen years old, virtually untrained, was capable of working a sorcery that could have destroyed this room, the palace that housed the Academy, and perhaps consumed all of Gea Kul as well.
My hopes were in vain, for that class was not the only one Zia paid a visit to during her first weeks at the Academy. By the end of her first month the girl's prowess at all forms of magery was practically the sole topic of conversation between the Maesters, and wild stories about Zia were already spreading through the student body. I saw another example of her might not long afterwards, though that one was witnessed second hand.
I was working in my office one afternoon during Zia's fifth week at the Academy when Maester Shien, one of my oldest and dearest friends, burst through the door. Her robes were soaking wet and she was shivering hard enough to set the ice crystals in her hair to shaking, but there was such a fierce light in Shien's eyes that I dared not speak. Instead I ushered the woman to the fireplace, tossed two fresh logs onto the glowing embers, and hurried to fetch a towel and robe from my bath.
By the time I returned the logs were blazing, no doubt assisted by some subtle magic from Maester Shien, and she had removed her sodden outer robe and hung it beside the hearth. I did not avert my eyes, but neither did let my eyes linger over the anatomy revealed by Shien's thin and clinging slip. We'd been students together not so long ago, advancing together through the sixth, seventh, and eight ranks as we moved towards Maester status, and had therefore witnessed each other's ceremonial rituals. These trials were solemn and ritualistic events at which students demonstrated their competence, skill, and devotion to the Academy. They were not pleasant experiences for the aspirants, and amongst the various ordeals was a walk through walls of fire and ice, while wearing nothing but the brands and tattoos that marked our allegiance to the Academy.
During those trials I had seen Shien nude on several occasions, but viewing her during such a ceremony was very different than seeing her shivering in my private office. I therefore turned my back to give her some privacy while she threw off her soaked slip, briskly dried herself, and pulled on robe I'd brought her. It fit her about as well as an ogre's tunic would have fit me, for Shien was nearly as petite as Zia herself, but it was warm and dry, and after a few minutes gazing into the flames, Shien perched on a bench near the hearth and began to speak.
"That girl is inscrutable. Her powers..." Maester Shien trailed off for a moment, her eyes returning to the flames. When she spoke again, her voice was low and thoughtful. "I have never felt such might, such raw strength. She does not learn the beginner spells. She does not nibble at the apple. She swallows it whole, and opens rifts in the elemental flows that pass all around us. I fear for her every time she casts a spell, and yet the danger of allowing her to proceed without training is unthinkable."
Even back in her student days, Shien had been prone to grand metaphors and abstract notions, sometimes to the vexation of her classmates. This time though, I could tell that she was not attempting to becloud the issue. She simply could not describe her feelings about Zia in plain terms. I understood her difficulty, for although I hardly knew the girl at that point, I already felt conflicted about her talent, personality, and appearance.
I let Shien be for a few minutes, before prodding her with a direct inquiry. "What did Zia do in your class? How did you come to be soaked by ice water?"
Shien raised one hand to her chin, then rubbed it over her still-wet face, the dark red tattoos across the back of her left hand visible in the firelight. She closed her eyes as if to gather her thoughts, and began speaking without re-opening them. Her words were slightly disjointed, a sign her scattered thoughts.
"I was instructing a class of fourth levels. Theory and practice of ice spells. Zia and a pair of Firsts were watching from the back, but I paid little mind. Younger students always seek a glimpse at the icy enchantments. They watched my instruction. Only when I turned the Fourths loose to attempt to ice the chandeliers did I walk to the guests."
She trailed off there, and as I joined her in looking at the crackling fire, I remembered teaching such classes myself. Fourth level students were generally in their seventh or eighth year at the Academy, and had mastered all of the elementary magics, but were just beginning to tap into the higher powers. Fourths needed to learn the basics of summoning water and chilling it, as well as exercising full control over all types of ice; from firing single bolts to freezing distant targets and controlling small bodies of water. Ice and water were closely linked, and the higher level ice spells were much the same as basic water summoning, with the added difficult of imparting sub-zero temperatures and precisely targeting the resulting ice.
I was pulled out of my musings when Shien continued. "The pair of Firsts had the usual questions. How cold was the ice, could it so solidly freeze a demon that it would shatter when struck, and so on. Zia had no such questions. She merely watched as the Fourths failed at their spells. When I asked her what she saw, she spoke slowly, her eyes never leaving the students behind me.
"She said that the students were too timid, that they were not opening themselves to the water elements, and thus their puffs of cold air had nothing to act upon. She said she understood how to bring forth the water, and that our method of cooling it seemed very imprecise. She asked me if I'd ever assigned the students Radominich's treatise on the elements."
I blinked in surprise when Shien named that work, for Radominich's writings were widely condemned, if not outright banned. He'd postulated radical theories, methods of converting substances with magery that were thought unsavory. Unnatural. Highly dangerous. I wondered, as Shien must certainly have, where Zia had seen such material. The Academy had copies of all of Radominich's works in the Great Library, but they were locked away in the special section, out of reach of fourth ranks, much less a neophyte like Zia.
"I did not challenge her about Radominich." said Shien. "Instead I told her that yes, ice spells were just water spells with cold temperatures, and that they were fairly simple to cast, once the student could make herself believe that it was possible to freeze the water before it appeared.
"Zia grasped the concept. She nodded at me, muttered something about 'anti-fire' and then asked if she could try.
"I was curious, and gestured for her to proceed. She gave me a bow, walked into the center of the room, under the high dome, and stood with her arms extended overhead. The Fourths stopped to look, the few icicles they'd managed to form dripping overhead. Zia had no wand. She had no focus device at all, and yet after a few seconds, water came from above. Water, as though we were standing beneath a lake. Water so cold it burned.
"The Fourths who were in the open scattered. Others stood open mouthed. Amidst the gasps, I heard Zia. 'Colder.' she said, and at once it was. I felt the chill in the air, like a doorway to winter had been opened overhead. The water froze at once, and huge chunks of ice came slamming down, breaking on the floor like dropped plates.
"Those stopped after a few seconds, and then Zia was standing in a blizzard. I could hardly see her, the flakes were so thick. They were gusting, as icy air swirled down from above. I ran towards the girl, my hair blowing behind me. I did not feel the cold. I did not realize I was soaked with water from her first attempt. I could only think of the fire she summoned in your class, that first week."
Maester Shien was one of the few to whom I'd related that story, and I nodded when she mentioned it. I don't think she saw me; she'd remained facing into the fireplace during her entire story, and she was still sitting as near as she could without catching on fire.
"I was afraid that she might have opened a rift to some arctic realm, some icy hell, and through it might enter something far worse than a chilling draft. Happily, she had not, and as I kicked through knee deep snow to reach her, Zia waved her arms and ended the summoning. As the flakes drifted down she looked into my eyes, and hers were glowing. The whites were... changed. Almost silver. I could not speak, but when she blinked the color was gone.
"I congratulated her, then raised my voice and shouted to the others that class was over. I told them to hurry and dry off, a command that Zia took to heart. She was happy, so happy. Her smile broader than ever, she bowed, thanked me, and ran towards the rear door. She skipped as she went. I waited a moment, to be sure that she'd left no lingering forces in the air, but once the last of the snow had fallen and I saw only the ice-crusted chandeliers, I realized how cold I was. And I hurried to your office, Archmaester Yun."
I did not know what to say, about Zia's display or Shien's final remark. I tried to make a joke, about how the Archmaester's office was much closer to her classroom than Shien's own quarters. Shien didn't laugh, but she did look at me, finally taking her eyes off of the flames. They were piercing, and she looked haunted by what she'd seen that afternoon.
Similar tales came to my ears from other Maesters, and while we compared them with each other and marveled at Zia's skills and potential, we were stupidly careless about controlling the rumors. For this I blame myself. I felt nothing but awe and admiration for Zia, to the point that I sometimes found myself daydreaming about the legends she would create, once she grew into her full power. Foolishly, I imagined that others would share my reaction; that the students would be proud to know her and the Maesters honored to have instructed her.
It wasn't long before the folly of my expectations started to become clear. In just her second month at the Academy grumblings began to be heard from the students -- whispers that Zia must be receiving special favors and extra instruction to have progressed so rapidly. These complaints increased over time, and worse, some of the Maesters began to show an unwarranted dislike for the girl. Zia was too perfect; too beautiful, too quick, too cheerful. Her magical progression was effortless, her potential was boundless, and some of the less-gifted Maesters, men and women who had scratched and clawed for decades to pass the higher level proficiencies, felt threatened; jealous of a neophyte who already possessed greater power than they themselves could ever hope to manifest.
I did have some success in heading off that sort of foolishness amongst the Maesters. I reminded them that our loyalty was to our discipline and to the Academy, and that it was our duty and privilege to educate those who would one day surpass and replace us. Besides, Zia's talents were inherent; she could not have taught them if she'd tried. Furthermore, I'd never seen a student whose future I was more certain lay outside of the Academy.
"Augustus!" I joked with one aged and embittered Maester. "You can't think a girl of her age is going to take your position? Even were she not destined win great battles and bring glory to our discipline, she's not yet turned nineteen. You're safe for another dozen years at least!"
Augustus would never react to any sort of humor, but he and the other Maesters I spoke to seemed slightly assuaged. What I didn't think to address was the grousing from students, and the vulnerability of my fellow Maesters to petty remarks and rumor mongering. Most tragic of all, I was the source of many of the worst rumors, however inadvertently.
By her third month at the Academy, I'd taken to working personally with Zia, one evening a week. It was a natural arrangement; I had the time since as the Archmaester I did not teach any regular classes, and I missed working directly with the students. I also happened to be especially skilled at the one aspect of magery that Zia found most difficult to master; transformation and teleportation. The girl's personality was too strong, her will too powerful. She had great difficulty in sublimating herself into any sort of transformation, and allowing herself to dissolve completely, as was required to teleport, was nearly impossible for her.
My tutoring sessions with her soon became the highlight of my week, and while I told myself that my interest was purely professional, I will admit to rather savoring the grateful hug she gave me before and after each class. I sometimes found my eyes wandering, for Zia usually removed her novice robe while she practiced teleportation in the warm outer room of my office. I'd attended to queens and royal mistresses who could not pull the eye as this girl did, even dressed in nothing more revealing than tights and a well-worn tunic.
I taught her as best I was able, and never let my wandering eyes linger, but I was ever conscious of the fact that novices sometimes teleported right out of their clothing, as they struggled to learn to control their bodies and garments at the same time. The thought of the upcoming rank promotion ritual also entered my head from time to time, since I was certain Zia would be moving up to at least the first level. Like all students at the trials, she would have to demonstrate her magical competence, and do so without any aids, or even clothing of any kind. Such ceremonies were always well-attended by Maesters and older students, but I knew the first one Zia took part in would strain the seating of the lower amphitheater.
Still, though my thoughts sometimes strayed, our interactions were without fault. Zia's beauty was without equal in the Academy or all of Gea Kul, and she was possessed of a most captivating personality. But I never did more than pat her on the shoulder, or return the embraces she enthusiastically initiated. It was hard not to touch her; Zia was irrepressibly friendly, and never shy about showing her affection with physical gestures. What I should have realized was that not all men were as disciplined as me, and that Zia was all too forgiving of their trespasses -- a combination of traits that had earned her an undeserved reputation as a tease and a temptress. It was unfair, but what were young men to think when she embraced them freely, pressing her firm breasts into their chests and never admonishing them for daring to pinch her behind while she delivered them a kiss on the cheek?
Worse than overly-friendly men were the others of Zia's gender. Female students were a minority in the Academy, but they were as tough or tougher than their male counterparts, and they did not take to Zia. For all her friendliness, the other women could not ignore the effect she had on men. How were they to feel when every man in the school openly lusted after her? For her part, Zia was innocent in thought and deed. What must have seemed friendly gestures to her were turned, by rumors and innuendo, into seductive subterfuge.
By the time that Zia was half a year into her training, we Maesters had given up any thought of holding her to a usual schedule. She'd mastered all of the elementary techniques within weeks of her arrival at the Academy, and her raw abilities were mighty enough to beggar every Maester in the school. I'd consulted with several of the elders and devised a highly modified program for Zia, one that would allow her the freedom to continue stretching her abilities, while forcing her to learn the basics. I put a special importance on increasing her mental control. As powerful as she was, the danger was in her overdoing it burning herself out, if not unleashing destruction upon us all.
In retrospect, it's surprising that events took so long to turn ugly. After all, I had mismanaged nearly every aspect of Zia's education. I'd failed to quash the cruel rumors, I'd put the girl on a special instructional program without ever explaining it to her fellow students, and I'd expected understanding and approval from my fellow Maesters, knowing they could not be relied upon to agree on the color of the sky from one moment to the next. Worst, I'd entirely underestimated the power of jealousy, envy, and wishful thinking. I did sometimes worry about how well Zia was fitting in, but I was kept so busy administering the Academy, jousting politically with the nobles and royalty of Gea Kul, and overseeing the deliveries of food and other supplies, that I neglected my uppermost duty. To instruct and protect the students.
During the ninth and tenth months of Zia's presence, I began to hear regular reports of quarrels amongst the students. These were not unheard of; the students at the Academy were brilliant, driven, and highly-competitive, and the advancement exams were brutal. It was not uncommon for less than a third of the students in a given rank to survive the grueling trials and move up a level, with the failure rate increasing at the higher ranks. Under those circumstances, it was only natural that their tension spilled over into occasional conflict, but so long as none of the students broke the rules about using magery outside of a supervised classroom situation, and no one was badly injured, the incidents were overlooked.
I should have realized that the conflicts were more frequent than usual, and that most of them were motivated by the same thing; men clashing over their delusions about Zia. Most of the male students had convinced themselves that Zia had romantic feelings for them, that she meant something special by the embraces she had bestowed upon them, and that it was only a matter of time until their friendship took a more passionate turn. Most of the female students were sure that Zia was sleeping with a different male student every day, and spending her nights engaged in carnal relations with the Maesters. I'm less sure how the Maesters felt, but I know there was no shortage of infatuations with Zia amongst them, and that many suspected their fellows of taking highly inappropriate liberties with the girl. Liberties they themselves were too noble and chivalrous to pursue.
None of it made any sense, and if I'd looked more closely at my own highly conflicted feelings for the girl I might have gained some valuable insight. I did not, sadly. Not until many months later, when disastrous events made such an analysis as unavoidable as it was overdue.
At the time though, nearly one year into Zia's time at the Academy, I felt that I had things under control.
I'd been moving Zia around regularly, not allowing her to stay too long in any class or with any Maester. This seemed to be working; no one spent enough time with her to grow truly obsessed. Well, almost no one. I spent an hour or two with her every week, tutoring her on the teleportation techniques she still found elusive, and helping to supplement her education in any other necessary areas. Zia learned at amazing speed, absorbing information from books nearly as readily as the scholarly Maester Shien, but her youth, inexperience, and the short time she'd spent at the Academy handicapped her in some areas.
With the wisdom of hindsight, I've come to believe that my educational approach was all wrong. While Zia was brilliant and quick to learn, she was also afflicted with a short attention span. Other than the teleportation, which she'd worked doggedly at for months, she tended to learn things almost at once, and then move on to something new. This had given her a massive amount of knowledge, but no mastery, and no deeper understanding of any aspects of magery. Furthermore, by popping her from class to class so often, she met all of the students and Maesters, but did not spend much time with any of them. As a result she was known by everyone, but understood by no one. Perhaps only I, out of the entire Academy, knew how many doubts she felt about her skills, or understood how hard she worked and how important the magery was to her. Everyone else simply saw a beautiful young girl who was perfect at everything and who was given all sorts of special privileges by the Archmaester. No amount of smiling and friendliness from Zia could offset the general impression that she was spoiled, pampered, and specially groomed for success.
The troubles began with a small argument in the kitchen. From what I learned after the fact, Zia was reading while carrying a plate to her table, when she bumped into Grace, a sixth level female student. No real harm was done, and Zia immediately apologized, but Grace had had a very rough morning in a conjuring class, and had quarreled with her boyfriend. Who, she rightly suspected, had something of a crush on Zia. In that mood Grace was unforgiving, and after raising her voice, she slapped Zia, scratched her face, seized her by the hair, and spun her into a wall, while dozens of students watched, cheering on the fight.
Three Maesters intervened, sending Zia to her quarters and Grace to Maester Shien for punishment. If that had been the end of it, things might have blown over. Zia, however, was not so easily dismissed. She'd been too shocked to fight back at the time, but once she was alone in her small room in the novices' dormitory, she began to simmer. Literally simmer; I responded to the frantic summons of a pair of Fifths who saw waves of heat glowing from the walls.
The door into the novice dormitory was too hot to touch, and wasting no time, I blasted it open with several frost spells. The great room beyond was as hot as an oven, and I took a moment to hurl a winter's worth of snow and ice into the glowing maw before I dared enter. Within I found two unconscious novices sprawled on a wooden table, the legs of which had been charred black from the heat rising from the floor.
The boys were covered by the snow I'd created, though it was already turning to slush on the burning floor, and hot gusts of air were blowing out from the creaking doors that led to private bedrooms. I wasted no time in seizing them and teleporting out into the hallway, depositing them in the arms of the older students who had gathered. Returning at once to the dormitory, I threw blasts of ice in every direction, blasting open the doors that were billowing open and closed like the bellows of a blacksmith's furnace. One door remained shut, and sent enough ice to shatter it. Through the broken wood I saw Zia, sitting on a smoldering bed, her head in her hands, her body literally glowing with heat.
She was unaware of my presence, and even as I filled her room with ice, literally coating the floor and furnishings, she remained motionless. Picking my way carefully over the jagged, melting ice that covered the floor, I made sure my hands were well shielded by a layer of ice before I dared touch the girl. She was unresponsive but malleable, and when I lifted up her head I saw her eyes glowing silver. She did not react in any way, not even when I scooped her up into my arms.
It was a mark of my concern that I did not revel in the feeling of her petite body against my chest. Standing up, I saw Maester Jennin, who must have entered the dormitory while I was approaching Zia. His eyes were wide, and when he spoke he was almost sputtering. "Such heat, coming from her. Without casting a spell! And her eyes! Were they not silver?"
I did not answer him, merely gestured for him to follow me as I raced down the hallway, teleported into the main gallery, and then up to the highest furnished level of the great palace that housed our Academy. I chose that level since a large and private Maester's lounge was located there, and I did not want any students or servants intruding at that point. Few Maesters were there at that hour, and I left Zia under the watchful eyes of Maesters Jennin and Shien, two of the few I could trust to keep quiet and to control her heat with powerful ice enchantments, if necessary. Zia was no longer glowing like a stone pulled from a fire, and remained motionless and silent when I laid her down on a couch, but I feared that she might still be highly agitated, and thus prone to another outburst of heat.
Long conferences ensued after the event, meetings of exactly the sort I least enjoyed. One of my main goals as Archmaester had been to reduce the endless bickering and tedious discussions that had formerly characterized so much of the day to day management of the Academy. Not every Maester needed to weigh in on every issue. Especially not those who simply enjoyed the sound of their own voices. In my first year as Archmaester I'd implemented a token system, where each Maester was given five coins before any meeting. They had to spend one each time they wished to speak, an expense that gave even the most congenital windbags pause for thought.
No coins were passed out before the discussions of "The Burning Girl," as some of the Maesters took to calling the incident with Zia, and if they had been I would have needed to empty the Academy's treasury to support the debate. Every Maester talked, and talked, and talked, turning over this particular event, and digressing to discuss the whole improbable year Zia had spent at the Academy. My instructional methods were criticized, cutting accusations of impropriety were hurled in every direction, and there was widespread disagreement about what to do next. To my surprise though, the biggest point of contention was what sort of spell Zia had used to broil her classmates.
Both novices had survived without any permanent scarring, and neither could say what had happened. They'd entered their dormitory, noticed that the floor was scorching, leapt onto a table, and not awakened until they were being carried to the infirmary, ice dripping from their blistered bodies.
The clear and unequivocal testimony of myself and Maester Jennin was examined from every direction, as though our words had been found in some ancient text, and were subject to interpretation.
"There was no flame!" Jennin repeated for the tenth time, only the restraining arms of two other Maesters holding him back from storming around the table and physically assaulting the badgering and frankly disbelieving Maester Gutherie.
"So says your report," said Gutherie, his voice as precise and annoying as ever, "And yet there is no known form of magery that can create such heat without it. Perhaps the girl had summoned forth a great flame, only to dispel it just before you entered the dormitory?"
Jennin mopped his face with his hands, before slamming them down on the table. "There was no flame. There was no glow of light. In fact the room was dark, lit only by a few melted candles. The door to her room was open long before I arrived. All the doors in the dormitory were thrown open by Arch Maester Yun's spells. Furthermore, the heat was not coming from just her room. The entire complex of rooms was hot enough roast a boar, and the girl was out of her mind! She hadn't cast, or dispelled any enchantments recently. The Archmaester threw enough ice at her to bring on an early winter, and even once she was calmed down and moved to the lounge, it took an hour for her to return to her senses!"
"Oh yes, and she had silver eyes. Silver? My, that is unusual. I have had the pleasure of speaking with the girl several times, and I'm fairly certain the objects behind her lids were always blue." Gutherie's tone was mocking, and as Jennin sputtered and began again to repeat his testimony, I realized what was driving Gutherie. He didn't understand Zia's power, and it frightened him. He felt powerless before it, and by using clever words and sarcasm to belittle others, he gained a tool to ward off the fear. I was usually the most diplomatic of Archmaesters, but the conference had gone on for far too long already.
I stood up and raised my hands high, so the sleeves of my robe fell down and bared the shining gold bracelets that marked my position. I seldom displayed any of the trappings of power that came with the Archmaester position, but it was sometimes necessary to remind the other Maesters under whom they served. When I spoke, my volume drowned out all the muttering in the room.
"Sir Gutherie! Your oratory skills are superb, far outstripping your magical abilities, or those of anyone on your end of the table. I realize that a student, especially such a young one, manifesting an unknown ability is shocking to all, but I assure you, Maester Jennin, myself, the two injured students, and all the melted metal fittings and scorched furnishings in the novices dormitory did not simply imagine the heat. Nor did the ceiling of the servant's quarters below."
Gutherie and Richelieu, his chief sycophant, tried to interrupt, but I moved on quickly.
"'The girl,' as you so brusquely refer to her, has been at this Academy for less than a year, and yet has routinely amazed your fellow Maesters with magical abilities far beyond those we black-robed geniuses can produce. If you've heard nothing of this, speak with some of your fellows. They can bring you up to speed -- I haven't the time. Since you so clearly disbelieve the evidence we have presented, I propose that you conduct a private interview with Zia, once she's feeling more herself. So long as there is another Maester present, you may quiz her on the strange heat with which she nearly killed us all. Perhaps she will gift you with the same demonstration she lavished upon those two novices."
Gutherie blustered at that, but he could hardly object to such a logical solution. Not that I gave him a chance to.
"With that resolved, let us move onto more important matters. What are we to do with Zia? She's been here for less than a year, but there are any number of reasons why it would be ludicrous to place her with the other first or second ranks."
I paused there an instant, leaving a gap into which Maester Dominick neatly inserted himself. "Zia is stronger with electrical spells than the fifth levels I teach. I'd place her standard at or near Maester, in that field."
This statement caused some considerable rumbling, and was openly scoffed at by Gutherie and a few of his cohorts. Their disbelief only grew louder when Maester Shien added her voice. "I can say the same for her talents over ice and water. Zia has attended a dozen of my middle and upper level ice classes, and I have taught her nothing. Her abilities come from within, from a deeper level of magery than that possessed by any Maester in this room."
These and a dozen other cries rang out at once, and I let them chatter for a moment, until their magpie squawking began to grow too heated. At that point I interrupted, standing and raising my arms and clanging the bracelets together. They emitted a unique pealing tone that all Maesters were sworn to respect. However grudgingly. I spoke quickly, before they could fall to squabbling again.
"I propose a test. A ritual!" That got their attention. We Maesters had passed countless tests to obtain our ranks, and were therefore predisposed to inflict them upon others.
"Zia must be advanced to a higher rank; that much is indisputable. And she must be tied most tightly to our Academy. Now, only her novice tattoo marks her as a student. If we are to continue revealing our most secret methods, she must swear fealty and obeisance, and make the appropriate vows. We do not normally ask so much of a novice, but Zia is no normal student. If she passes the required exams, if she can walk unbowed through the flame and ice, she will be placed into the fifth level, where her instruction will focus chiefly on control, discipline, and mental strength. Her magery is unquestioned; it's her focus and willpower that must be improved."
My bold proposal set off another explosion of debate, but I knew I had them. While a novice was sometimes advanced straight to the second level, and exceptional students had sometimes skipped other, higher level ranks, advancing a novice to the fifth level was without precedent. Still, the Maesters were intrigued, for I had said that Zia must pass the tests, and it had ever been a policy at the Academy that none were denied advancement if they proved worthy.
With that established, the argument soon turned to the nature of the ordeals Zia must endure, rather than the proposal that she be offered them at all. And with that, I knew I had won. I sat silently, trading a few knowing looks with Maester Shien, as the skeptics and doubters hashed out the terms of the exams. There was much to debate, for the normal fifth level requirements were inapplicable to Zia, containing as they did so much memorized material from books she had not yet been permitted to read. But she must be tested, and tested firmly, but fairly, for we Maesters prided ourselves on our fairness. Especially when we were most vainglorious.
End Part 1/3. Part 2 will come on Wednesday Dec 2, and part three on Friday Dec 4. Enjoy, and comment as you see fit.